Michael Emerson of ‘Lost’ on Why Ben Linus Never Blinks

Photo: Courtesy of ABC

Have we mentioned that the season premiere of Lost is Thursday? Oh, that’s right. We can’t stop talking about it. So it should come as no surprise that Vulture was thrilled when Michael Emerson (Ben Linus) found the time to dish about the upcoming episodes. The thoughtful New York stage vet talked at impressive length about those titillating flash-forwards, Ben's paternal instincts, and whether the spookiest villain on TV becomes a hero this season.

Damon Lindelof said, back in November, that the season's ending after the eighth episode due to the writers' strike would be "torturous" for fans. Do you feel the same way about that?
Well, yeah … I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I mean, the eight episodes we have are pretty damned entertaining. And whether it’s by accident or craft, there is a pretty good button on the end of the eighth episode. I mean it’s quite a shocking plot twist and cliffhanger. I think it would do in a pinch. I’m sure they have a master plan and some amazing story developments that we would love to get to, but I don’t know what we’ll do if we can’t get back to work fairly soon. There must be a magic date somewhere in March beyond which they’ll say, ‘Look, we’re just going to have to scrap the season, show what we have, and come back next year.’

Do you think there’s any way the show can still wrap up by 2010?
Sure.

Will the remaining two seasons be extended then?
Probably. They need 48 episodes to tell the story, so if we only get 8 done this season that means there’s 40 left, so maybe two seasons of 20 or, two of 16 and another mini-season. I don’t know how they’d do it, but I don’t think they can go any more years actually.

It’s been contractually set up that way, is that right?
It has been, and I think they’ll begin to have defections from the cast.

What would Ben Linus offer in terms of advice to the producers and writers with regards to manipulating the other side in negotiating the strike?
Well, Ben Linus would say, "Get to know them as well as you can. Get to know their agenda. Think like them. Find their weaknesses, and then apply pressure."

It doesn’t seem like they’re following that advice just yet.
No, I don’t think so. [Laughs.]

Have you ever been instructed, when playing Ben, to blink as little as possible? Or is that a personal decision? Or is that just your normal blinking rate?
Well, I don’t think about whether I’m blinking or not. I do try not to break a connection with another actor when it’s a sort of crackling moment. I sort of have this image of a wire going from me to the other character, and I don’t want it cut.

Do you find it frustrating at all to play a character episode to episode not really knowing the whole story, not really knowing his complete background?
You could find it frustrating, or you could just sort of accept that that’s the terms under which you’re going to have to tell this story. On another level, it’s actually fairly freeing. I’m not responsible for huge sweeps of tone or logic. I just sort of show up on the day and I play the scene as best I can given the stakes we have on that day. A lot of it is trust, I just trust that the editors and creators of the show are going to make sense of it in big terms.

You’re sort of just carrying the ideas of the writers at that particular moment.
It’s true. In a way, Lost, or maybe TV in general, is a kind of a contract between the writers and the viewers. And the actors — of course we have a great deal to do with it — but where the drama’s made, sort of where the meeting of minds is, is between those two parties: writers and audience.

What was your reaction to those writers last season when you read the script that delved into Ben’s history? There was this almost-genocidal murder of the Dharma Initiative, including his father.
I said, "Wow, this is darker than I expected." It was the only time I spoke with the writers, only because I had been going along, and I still go along, with this possibly naïve notion that Ben will one day be revealed in a more heroic light on the show, just because that seems like a good notion for me to have if I’m going to not be making judgments about his behavior. But that episode was so dark and murderous, I worried that maybe I wasn’t on the same page as the writers. But they said, "No, no, your notion is a fine one. Don’t worry about the darkness of this episode. These events will be revisited."

So the writers are fully aware of your mind-set that Ben will eventually be something of a hero?
Oh, yeah, they know that’s what I think. In fact, I think they encourage it. Now, maybe they’re pulling my chain, but I don’t think so. These are subtle fellows, and they like to pull change-ups.

Do you think that Ben might emerge as something of a hero in this season? At least, in the eight episodes that have been filmed already?
No, "hero" is too strong a word, although I do believe in season four you will see Ben in — I won’t call them friendships — but making alliances with people you never dreamed he would have. But that’s because in season four, we no longer have two camps, we’re going to have three. There are dangerous people coming from the outside, and of course when there are new enemies, that means that old enemies may find a use for one another.

You say they’re "dangerous" and "terrifying," but the Others were fairly terrifying in the first place. Would you say there is a similar fear here?
Yeah, I suppose it is. The people we worry about most on Lost are the ones who have secret or mystery agendas, and who the newcomers work for and what their mission is is a mystery, but I think we can take my character at his word when he says that they mean them no good.

Is there anything you care to share about Jacob, even if it’s just whether he will be reappearing anytime soon?
This is one of the things I have to say I would love someone to tell me more about this character/noncharacter Jacob. I’m trying to think, I don’t know that there’s — I don’t believe there’s a physical appearance by the character in the episodes we’ve got done, but of course much talk. He may be on the back burner right now because some other events are taking over the action of the show, but believe me, he will be revisited.

It seems like season four is really going forward with integrating supernatural elements in the plot. There’s been some buzz about time travel being a possibility and some other nonscientific forces playing upon the story line. Is that true, and, if so, are you happy with that direction?
I don’t think it’s a new direction. There have always been intimations of the supernatural or the supranormal on the show. They’re not really what I would call magic. Some characters on the show have special sensitivities, or ‘gifts’ would be a way to refer to them, and some of the new characters on the show have particular gifts. They’re out there on the cusp between science and magic, and I think they’re usually pretty interesting and never a waste of our time.

With regards to the flash-forwards, there seems to be a general consensus that the revelation at the end of season three sort of revitalized the show, both in terms of the show and general interest. Do you think the flash-forwards were exactly what the show needed?
I think they’re a stroke of genius. I think it opens the door to something very adult, a sense of remorse and loss, a sort of absence of a happy ending or compromises that there isn’t going to be any easy way out of here.

It adds a note of tragedy to what could have been a traditionally comic scenario: There’s all this folly on the island and they all get off one day and everyone lives happily ever after, and all of a sudden we know that’s not true. Considering that, do you think that tragic note will dominate? Will there be no more comic relief?
No, I think it will be part of the mix. It’s always been kind of a soup of adventure and action and metaphysics and humor, and it will continue to be so, but I think the show will continue to be even more complicated, and those darker notes, those tragic resonances, will eventually multiply.

Life on the island has been turned on its side, especially the power structure. Everyone is sort of on the run. Do you feel like Ben is powerless now?
No, but he is in diminished circumstances, but that’s kind of cool. In season four, Ben is now a general with no army, no weapons, no resources, no money, no access to anything, so suddenly he’s going to have to try to affect the world around him using his wits alone. He’ll be improvising, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he can manage.

Aside from the mystery of Jacob, what is your burning question? If you could get an answer about anything, what would it be?
Well, that flash-forward at the end of season three contains a couple of amazing mysteries. Who’s in the coffin? That’s a big one. There’s a lot of talk even among cast members about that one, and no one can quite figure it out. And then there’s this business of Kate having someone that she needs to get home to, so you sort of wonder about that. And of course the biggest mystery that opens up is who survives life on the island and who doesn’t.

One of the online-only offerings that has been around lately were these "Missing Pieces" scenes, for instance the one where Ben plays chess with Jack. Were you a fan of those?
I like them. They’re little appetizers. I love the delicate way they’ve been constructed so that they neither confirm nor deny impressions we already have, but they’re intriguing and textural and enjoyable. I watched the most recent one, which I think is where Jin is trying to play golf, and he has a bit of a meltdown doing it. And I thought, My God, he gets the award for the greatest performance in a mobisode, of that whole series of short scenes.

Considering that Ben killed his own father, do you think he feels any legitimate paternal instincts toward Alex?
Yeah, he truly seems to. I have to give that relationship as much gravity as I can in my own mind. If he was a cold-blooded monster, there wouldn’t be much richness in the playing of that relationship, and the writing tells me otherwise. The writing tells me he’s a careful and conscientious father to her, no matter what the real nature of their relationship is. He does indeed wish her well. He has strange ways of showing it sometimes.

Are you voting in the primary on Tuesday? Do you know who you’re supporting yet?
I am, and I don’t. That’s a first ever for me. I’ve never been undecided this deep into any political year.

Who do you think Ben would vote for?
Ooh, Ben’s vote would surprise you because his perspective on the election would be different. I don’t know, Ben’s maybe a Republican in a certain kind of a way, just because he has so many defense and security issues on his mind.

That sounds accurate. Maybe Ben likes McCain?
He might; he might well like him. Of course, what Ben would say is, "It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who any of us vote for because we are really governed by someone behind the curtain."
—Michael Alan Connelly